The evidence is staggering.
Close to 3 tonnes of captured Syrian government documents, providing a chilling and extensive catalog of the state’s war crimes, are held by a single organization in Europe. A Syrian police photographer fled with pictures of more than 6,000 dead at the hands of the state, many of them tortured. The smartphone alone has broken war’s barriers: Records of crimes are now so graphic, so immediate, so overwhelming.
Yet six years since the war began, this mountain of documentation — more perhaps than in any conflict before it — has brought little justice. The people behind the violence remain free, and there is no clear path to bring the bulk of the evidence before any court, anywhere.
More than 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war. Half the nation’s population has been displaced. Syrian human rights groups list more than 100,000 people as missing, either detained or killed. Tens of thousands languish in government custody, where torture, deprivation, filth and overcrowding are so severe that a UN commission said they amounted to “extermination,” a crime against humanity.
However, so far there is only one war-crimes case pending against Syrian officials, filed in Spain, over a man who died in government custody.
No cases have gone to the International Criminal Court. Syria has never joined it, so the court’s chief prosecutor cannot start an investigation on her own. The UN Security Council could refer a case to the court, but Russia has repeatedly used its veto power to shield Syria from international condemnation. And even if the council were to take action, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his top officials are battened down in Damascus, making their arrests difficult, to say the least.
Earlier this month, the outside world was jolted by a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. The US government attributed the attack to al-Assad’s forces based on flight data and other information. In response, US President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles and called al-Assad an “animal.”
As al-Assad has consolidated his control of Syria’s major cities, some countries that have long opposed him have signaled a new willingness to accept his rule as the fastest way to end the war, encourage refugees to go home and accelerate the fight against jihadists. As bad as al-Assad may be, some argue, Syria would be worse without him.
al-Assad’s opponents counter that keeping a head of state with so much blood on his hands perpetuates the war.
The chemical attack was just his most recent atrocity, after years of torture, forced disappearances, siege warfare and indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods and hospitals. The violence will continue as long as al-Assad and his security apparatus remain, his enemies say.
“This is not some abstract human rights issue,” said Laila Alodaat, a Syrian human rights lawyer at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “This lies at the core of this conflict and of any possible solution or reconciliation. Hundreds of thousands of victims and their families need justice, remedy and assurance that the future will be free from such violations.”
Syria’s war has seen atrocities on all sides. Rebels have shelled civilian neighborhoods, and the militants of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have deployed suicide bombers, tortured enemies and executed prisoners, often on video.